Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, center, addresses supporters in the town of Maladzechna, northwest of Minsk. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing a lose-lose situation in Belarus as the shock rise of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya — the wife of a jailed video blogger — challenges his entrenched counterpart.

A narrow or questionable victory by longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko, the devil Putin knows, threatens to condemn Minsk to be a weak ally. Victory by Tsikhanouskaya, however, threatens a repeat of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution or even a new Ukraine – both viewed dimly by Moscow.

Early voting began in Belarus on Tuesday, but the female upstart has called on her supporters to vote on Sunday, the last day of polling, to avoid manipulation before the final count, AFP reported.

For the five-term incumbent Lukashenko, this is the first time political surprise is in the arsenal of his rival. For the past quarter-century, he has managed to keep Belarus on course, navigating between an often exasperated but always interested European Union and a sometimes friendly but always encroaching Russia.

Yet today the seeming master of maneuver seems to have lost control, facing an unexpected challenge by an unanticipated rival, who has been drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.

No longer content with passive resignation, the populace has been coming out in recent weeks to show their support for the new rival. And with a rising popularity driven as much by popular discontent as political charisma, Tsikhanouskaya may make the vote the most consequential in modern Belarus.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, center, with Veronika Tsepkalo, left, wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo who was barred from running for the presidency, and Maria Kolesnikova, right,. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP

Putin’s power paradox

As interesting and inspiring developments in Belarus may be, developments in Minsk will undoubtedly drive cold calculations in Moscow. Putin, seemingly at ease enforcing his rules in his own post-Soviet “near abroad” neighborhood, faces in Belarus a daunting paradox for power and influence.

For the Russian leader, a classic calculus always applies. Power projects prestige and security, while prestige provides power and status. Quite unexpectedly, Belarus is defying Putin’s mathematical modeling. All possible scenarios in Minsk portend an abrupt decline of Russian power and prestige.

Further upsetting the Putin model is the element of risk. Putin has never been reckless. Even his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 were based on cold probing calculations that tested local resistance and Western resolve. Only when he found both lacking did he proceed.

Belarus presents precisely the kind of high risk, lose-lose scenario that Putin would naturally abhor if not avoid.

Under the most likely scenario, if Lukashenko manages to hold on to power and subvert the looming election, he will become a different kind of leader in a different kind of country.

Embattled, weakened and perhaps more paranoid than usual, a “victorious” Lukashenko will no longer be either a respected rival or a submissive supplicant for his Russian counterpart. Lukashenko may become like others before him, a prisoner of the presidential palace whose time is marked and power is rapidly eroding; a waning figure rather than the feared autocrat who has ruled since 1994.

For Moscow, Minsk would become a ghost, as an unreliable partner and an unpredictable neighbor on the verge of collapse.

Under the less likely scenario, Tsikhanouskaya wins the election. Just as unfamiliar as she is in the West, and indeed for many in Belarus, she is even more of a stranger to Russia. For Putin, finding common ground with such a new leader may be difficult. And given her intentions to draw Belarus away, at least slightly, from Russia’s orbit, she would not be easily convinced to seek common ground with her Russian interlocutor.

A third scenario holds much darker and deadly dimensions. Russia could directly intervene in the aftermath of the elections, making Belarus a new Ukraine. Given the public humiliation of a Russian paramilitary group recently arrested in Minsk, Moscow may see intervention as the less costly option among many worse choices.

Such a calculation would be based on a new maxim for Moscow that sees Belarus as too close to fail, reflecting fear of what a post-Lukashenko Belarus along Russia’s borders would mean for others.

This distressing scenario would also be based on Russian weakness and insecurity more than on confidence and strength. Such a possibility, however improbable, demonstrates that Belarus is now seen as a test and potential tipping point for an already over-extended Russia.

Policemen stand in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev late on Sunday, while smoke from a flare thrown by protesters is seen during a rally, following an incident in the Black Sea off Moscow-annexed Crimea, in which three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized by a Russian border guard vessel. Photo: AFP
Police stand in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev, while smoke from a flare is seen during a rally, after an incident in the Black Sea in which three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized by a Russian border vessel. Photo: AFP

The tipping point

Belarus makes clear the landscape of Moscow’s “near abroad” neighborhood of former Soviet states is changing. Although these shifts have been underway for some time, the Minsk elections may become a tipping point.

Unlike the “revolutions of fruits and flowers” witnessed in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, Belarus appears to be following a different trajectory, as Armenia did in 2018. In Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” a rare victory of peaceful people power relied on non-violent confrontation to depose an arrogant but weak regime.

In the case of Armenia, deep discontent and accumulated frustration enticed a population to invest in a lesser known opposition leader who defied but also surpassed expectations of toppling an entrenched ruling elite.

For Moscow, any embrace of Armenia by Belarus as inspiration may be a potent challenge, not only in terms of weakening Russia’s grip on its neighbors, but also as a fatal blow to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

The popular support and non-violence of the Armenian model made it inevitable and unstoppable. But while Armenia offers a reassuring case of peaceful change, the risk for Belarus is that Moscow sees that as exactly the scenario it must avoid.